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Science Derby: Vanessa Vaughan joins RealScientists – Real Scientists

Science Derby: Vanessa Vaughan joins RealScientists

It’s not rocket surgery to figure out doing a PhD is, in a word, hard. They are brain-breaking, spirit-crushing, life-changing endeavours in human fortitude and determination. They take the very best of the people who attempt them and squeeze every last effort they are able to give. 80 hour weeks. Brain screaming on overdrive. Interrupted sleep. And the drinking regimen is fairly debilitating. So, yeah. PhDs. Really, really hard. Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult. Don’t do one unless you’re completely committed. Otherwise you may well be committed by the end of it.

What’s also hard: hospo. Working in bars. Waiting on tables. Pulling beers. Pulling stupid hours. Dealing with rude customers and obnoxious coworkers, and getting paid two fifths of nowt for the privilege. What does working in hospitality have in common with research, I hear you ask? Apart from the crazy hours, lousy pay and equally debilitating drinking regimen? It has our next curator, Vanessa Vaughan aka @andanin. Because simply doing a PhD wasn’t hard enough, Vanessa began hers by doing it part time while working in hospitality five days a week. That was, until the gods of funding saw the error in their ways in not offering this first-class honours student a PhD stipend and bestowed upon her a highly prestigious Victorian Cancer Council Scholarship… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Vanessa, in her own words (and some of ours):

Hi, I’m Vanessa, and I’m a scientist.

That’s OK, Vanessa, we don’t judge here.

Ineysa_professional’m a PhD student with Deakin University’s School of Medicine, based in Geelong, an hour South-West of Melbourne, Aus.  I have spent the last 4 ½ years studying a condition of muscle atrophy in cancer patients, known as cancer cachexia. With only a few months of my PhD to go, you could probably best describe what I do as writing lots ‘Molecular Nutrition’: I look at if we might be able to help treat this condition using the active components in our food, looking at the effects at a protein and genetic level, as well as the body as a whole.

Originally, I wanted to work in habitat rehabilitation, finding out about all of the plant and animal species in an area, and how to help them recover from damage or changes to their environment. This is because I grew up in areas where lots of species are under threat from industrial activity and farming, and wanted to help save them. I also wanted to do documentaries on these habitats, like Sir David Attenborough, so people could learn about the impact we have on the environment. I loved science in high school thanks to some amazing teachers who saw I was bored with the basics and threw me massive challenges, like the Siemens Science Experience, and letting me write my thermodynamics essay on how much energy it would take to melt the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Ms Becker, Mr Igoe, Mr Wenzel, I can never thank you enough! After that, it was only a matter of time before research found me. I studied my Bachelor of Science at Deakin, hoping to get into post-disaster/industrial habitat rehabilitation, but my course ended up being more about the human body than ecology and the environment. In my final year, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Paul Lewandowski’s Molecular Nutrition Lab on a summer project, and they haven’t gotten rid of me since. I finished my Honours with them the following year, and dove straight into my PhD after that.

Cachexia strikes a particular chord with me, because I’ve had family members that were affected. It’s a condition that affects around 50% of cancer patients, and not only reduces the effectiveness of chemotherapy, but decreases survival and quality of life. It’s underdiagnosed, and even when it is, we currently have no globally effective cures. More on this during the week. The interest in nutrition as therapy really comes from my passion for food, and the idea that optimising diet can be a valuable addition to treatment programs.

If you’d like more information on Vanessa’s project, Deakin’s Research Communications wing interviewed her last year on her road to research and her PhD journey so far; their article can be found here.

Aside from doing science, I also love talking about science. As well as professional conferences, I try to get involved with schools, through initiatives like I’m a Scientist, I’ve been lucky enough to be a guest on Science on Top, and I have a blog that (sporadically) discusses my work (and hobbies…).

What about when I’m not working on science? Well…


Crazy hair, roller skates, tasty beverages and zombiepocalypse

I’m a roller derby tragic. It’s a fast paced, hard hitting sport, and someone has to keep the skaters under control! Being a bit of a rules nut, earlier this year I decided to become a Zebra (referee), so most afternoons/evening/weekends you’ll find me at training, having a skate along Geelong’s waterfront, or catching games around our region.


The new lab safety officer was a bit OTT about PPE

I’m also a bit of a beer nerd. Aside from the obvious reason of being delicious, there is a lot of fascinating science behind beer, and I love learning about how the smallest change in one of the four key ingredients can completely change the properties of a beer. If money were no object, I’d definitely start my own science-based brewing operation, just so I could have my own personal lab.

Craft beer and violence: as a doctor I endorse this. (I’m a terrible doctor.) Cheers to Vanessa, and welcome to RealScientists!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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